September 25, 2016

A Beauty and A Beast

“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle.  Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. But then, one winter’s night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away, but she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty was found within. And when he dismissed her again, the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The prince tried to apologize but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart, and as punishment she transformed him into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there.  Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.  The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose which would bloom until his twenty-first year. If he could learn to love another, and earn their love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken, but if not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed he fell into despair and lost all hope, for who could ever learn to love a beast?”

I’ve been thinking about these words a lot lately this last week.  They are of course, the first words you hear when you hit play on Disney’s 1991 classic The Beauty and the Beast.  I, like most Disney fanatics I’ve met, am unable to pick an absolute 100% all-time favorite Disney movie. I have different preferences for different days, different emotions, different moods in my life. But I must admit, The Beauty and the Beast does tend to spend more time in my DVD player than its case.  Now, I know that there are a number of reasons that these words would be in my head this week. Perhaps it’s because we’ve arrived at the 25th anniversary of the movie and every time I turn on the television there is a new commercial telling me to run out and get the latest copy! Maybe it’s because D23, the official Disney Fanclub of which I am a proud Gold Member, continues to send me e-mails inviting me to special screenings.  Or, it might be because in six short months the live action version of the film will be released and I’ve been glued to my computer waiting eagerly for each new spoiler that comes out! Then again maybe the answer is simple and the words are in my head because it’s time for me to pop it in the DVD player once more, sit back, relax, and enjoy.

But maybe, just maybe, this week is a little something more.

This week, as I read the parable commonly called Lazarus and the Rich Fool over and over and over again, it wasn’t The Beauty and the Beast that I heard in my head.  It was just the introduction, those same words over and over and over again. The two tales have a lot in common, far more than even I’d ever realized!

We have our beast, a man with no name who plays the villain of this tale, though I doubt that he’s aware of it.  We are not given many details about this man.  There is no indication of how he got his wealth, if he has a wife and children, or even parents. It’s only much later into the parable that we learn he has five brothers. The one thing we are told about this man is that he is rich, very rich, if his clothes are any indication! He wears purple, a color that at this time can only be created using a very special seashell from a very particular part of the world. Very rare and very expensive, purple is almost exclusively worn by royalty because they are the only ones that can afford it! Well, royalty and our man, of course. He wears purple day in and day out, flaunting his wealth, taking pride in his collections, letting others know that he is a man who enjoys the finer things in life; good food, faithful servants, a magnificent home.

We have our beast, and like the beast from the film, ours will soon find his world turned upside-down by a challenge; a challenge that he is unaware is even before him.  Meet Lazarus.  A man of poor health, marked with ugly scars and sores, laid outside the Rich Man’s gate every day, perhaps by family and friends, hoping, praying that one day the Rich Man will look down on Lazarus and have pity, will help him.  Day after day he waits and begs when he leaves his home.  “Please,” he begs.  “I don’t need purple clothes; I know they will not enrich my life. I don’t need shelter; I know that it will not make the sores go away. I don’t even need a feast! Look at me! Skinny as I am I couldn’t eat one if I tried.  All I want are a few morsels, scraps, leftovers from the feasts you devour each day. I have nothing to give you in return but the opportunity to do something good and help another. Please, take the opportunity.”

The Rich Man dismisses Lazarus.  Over and over again he dismisses him and this is where our curse comes into play, for in death there is nothing to hide behind.  Beauty and Ugliness simultaneously melt away to reveal what was hidden underneath the entire time.  Lazarus, once wretched and pitiful in life is revealed to be handsome, healthy, and whole; a good man.  But as for the Rich Man, the true reality of his actions are finally revealed when we find him living in a pit of fire, tormented day in and day out by the heat. It is only in his cursed state that he realizes the life he lived.  He tries to apologize but it is too late, for in life there was no love in his heart, now he is doomed to remain cursed for all time.

We have a beast, a challenge, and a curse; a who, a what, and a how, and so it would seem the only thing we are missing is the “why”. We always need a “why”.  Why is the purpose, the reason the tale was told in the first place. There are many different ways to interpret The Beauty and the Beast, depending upon which version you use, but when it comes to the 1991 Disney version, I like to think its purpose is to force us to look inside of ourselves.  This tale asks us to consider if what we possess on the inside is just as beautiful as we make ourselves out to be on the outside.

To the world, Prince Adam, which is the Beast’s name, by the way, possesses everything.  He lives in a shining castle, he has servants, clothing, gold, jewels, and none of those were the problem. I imagine if they were the problem, the introduction would state “but it was too late because the enchantress had seen all his many things and took them away leaving him sad and upset. The end.” But it doesn’t.  It was him. “For the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind” to an old beggar woman who sought no jewels, clothes, or even money, only shelter from the cold.  And so, the prince became a beast, just as ugly on the outside as on the inside, he kept his prized possessions and discovered that they were not enough to save him or buy his happiness.

The Rich Man is not much different than the Beast and the lesson doesn’t really vary either.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that the tale of the Rich Man is hardly a family friendly tale that will be coming to a theater near me in the near future… but that doesn’t make its message any more different, or less important.  Lazarus and the Rich Man asks us to look inside of ourselves, because Jesus is not nearly as concerned about the outside as he is what is on the inside.  Wealth and riches were not the problem in his story; it was how the Rich Man used them, or perhaps how he didn’t use them.  To the world he had all that he ever wanted and more, but without compassion, without love, he had nothing.

And he should have known it should have been clear to him, if only he’d listened to warnings, the stories of the past! If only he’d really heard the commandments passed down by prophets, the same commandment that Jesus would give and later that Paul would write in his letter to Timothy! “Serve God above all! Use your resources to care for the community and love all those around you. That is what will make you truly rich in God!”

A beast, a challenge, a curse, and a lesson, it would seem that is all we need to compare these two tales but there is one final way in which these two stories are similar.  Hope.  Every good tale needs hope, no matter how small it may be.  In The Beauty and the Beast the hope is clear: “If he could learn to love another and earn their love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken.”  Where is the hope in the tale of Lazarus and the Rich Fool.  It is here.  It is you and it is me, we are the hope.  The lesson is simple: listen to those who came before, take their words to heart, obey, and do good.  The hope of this tale is that we’ll hear this lesson, we’ll take it; let it mold us into something truly beautiful.

Are we beauties or are we beasts? The challenges are before us daily, do not be deceived by their appearances and with any luck at the end of the day the stories we tell will not end with a curse, but with blessings not yet told.